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Pollution cuts life expectancy in China

BEIJING -- People in northern China may be dying five years sooner because of diseases caused by air pollution, an unintended result of a decades-old policy providing free coal for heat, a study found.

Coal burning that leads to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses may cause the 500 million living north of the Huai River, a rough line dividing north and south China, to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy, says the research published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The government gave free heating coal to those north of the Huai River from 1950 to 1980, and such indoor systems remain common today, the study showed. Burning coal in boilers is linked to the release of particulate matter that can be extremely harmful to humans, raising health costs and suggesting a move away from using fossil fuels would be attractive, according to Michael Greenstone, one of four authors of the study.

"This was an unintended consequence of the policy," said Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It makes a movement away from the use of fossil fuels or the installation of pollution abatement equipment look much more attractive."

The policy wasn't implemented in the south because of budget constraints, the study found.

The authors, who include researchers from Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, compiled air pollution data for 90 Chinese cities from 1981 to 2000 and analyzed 500,000 deaths recorded between 1991 and 2000.

They found that air pollution was about 55 percent higher north of the river than south of it. Long-term exposure to every additional 100 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter was found to cut life expectancy at birth by three years.

Indoor air pollution from solid fuel use and urban outdoor air pollution are estimated to be responsible for 3.1 million premature deaths globally every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Air quality in Beijing reached hazardous levels for 20 days in January, according to U.S. Embassy readings. The average level of PM2.5 pollution in the month was similar to an airport smoking lounge, based on comparisons with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. PM2.5 refers to fine air particles that pose the greatest risks for lung and heart diseases. -- Bloomberg News